Tech

Terry Boyd: The rise of the global tech elite

(Editor’s note: This post on the rising global tech elite is part of our Tech Tuesdays series. Dispatches covers tech because so many of our highly skilled internationals are engineers, physicists or developers.)

So, we’re sitting in a meeting with a potential client talking about the talent he needs to recruit for his startup. The client tells us he really needs an FPGA engineer, which are difficult to find in Europe.

A what?

With a Dispatches Media subsidiary company that raises capital though global networks, we’re in the tech game. Yet more and more, we’re finding the world is changing out from under us.

We’re not the only ones.

Let me ask you this:

• Can you explain to a child how a computer works?

• Can you explain what a compiler does?

• Do you know how your iPhone works?

• Can you explain how light transmits data?

• Do you really know how photolithography works or why ASML and TSMC completely dominate the semiconductor industry?

Anyone? Anyone?

Bueller?

There is the tech elite, and then there’s everyone else

Well, here’s the deal: In this increasingly deep-tech-dominated world, there is the global tech elite – tech entrepreneurs, engineers, physicists and computer scientists – and then there’s the rest of us.

Our lives increasingly are shaped by tools and technology we don’t really understand in any fundamental way.

That’s a little bit scary because as technology increases exponentially in both reach and complexity, we are increasingly dependent on – and at the mercy of – this tech elite.

We’re already seeing tech elites trying to dominate everything, including Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, shaping American political policy while they rule space exploration including satellite communications, as well as data mining and the EV industry.

Throughout history, this drive for dominance has proven to be problematic, whether the tech elites were the literate scribes who copied (and controlled) scientific research and theological tracts, the physicists at Los Alamos who invented The Bomb or the handful of scientists in The Valley who invented transistors, then quickly followed with integrated circuits and micro-processors.

By the way, the FPGA engineer mentioned above works with field programmable gate arrays, integrated circuits that can be programmed after manufacturing and are used in embedded systems. Basically, they are – compared to advanced computer chips – simpler programmable or reprogrammable chips for all sorts of applications. For example, FPGAs in satellites can be remotely upgraded or debugged remotely. FPGAs also are an important tool in AI.

The shift to the theoretical

Before the 1960s and transistorization, miniaturization, electronic ignition systems and fuel injection, pretty much anyone with applied math skills could, say, build a complicated machine such as an automobile or airplane, or at least have a deep understanding of how they work. Advances were incremental and basically in the marketing.

But it’s the shift to theoretical science that starts to exclude those of us with lesser skills.

Take ASML, the Eindhoven-based photolithography company. ASML’s method of imprinting circuitry on to computer chips involves blasting tiny droplets of tin with the world’s most powerful industrial laser. The lasers blast off a layer of photons at a wavelength the ASML machine uses to etch the smallest possible circuits onto the most advanced computer chips.

I’m not making this up.

From the ASML website:

In our laser-produced plasma (LPP) source, molten tin droplets of around 25 microns in diameter are ejected from a generator at 70 meters per second. As they fall, the droplets are hit first by a low-intensity laser pulse that flattens them into a pancake shape. Then a more powerful laser pulse vaporizes the flattened droplet to create a plasma that emits EUV light. To produce enough light to manufacture microchips, this process is repeated 50,000 times every second.

On its website, ASML has a great post outlining how we got to where we are today, with extreme ultra violet technology the result of decades of research in Japan, the United States and at ASML.

So, in a few generations, we’ve gone from legions of self-taught engineers such as Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers to a tiny number of people globally working at the sub-atomic level to harness electrons and photons, creating the next generation of computer chips and software to control cars and airplanes.

Brave New World

With the marcom piece of our business, we have to try to get our heads around some of the most mind-bending technology on the planet. No matter how many times I read dumbed-down explanations of quantum computing, for example, I still come away baffled. Everyday, I hear myself saying, “Who the hell thought this up?”

This is because I have no foundation in science. I only passed high school chemistry and physics because I sat next to engineer-in-the-making Jim Marks and could copy his answers when I got stuck. Even though we go to all the seminars at High Tech Campus Eindhoven, artificial intelligence and GPT variants still came out of nowhere for us.

All this will produce in a few short years a world we wouldn’t recognize today:

• Gradually, what you’ll see is most of us relegated to support roles … the money people to bankroll the tech and (fewer and fewer) semi-skilled laborers to keep it all running.

• Nationalism is going to matter less and less. The most advanced countries will be libertarian technocracies. Antiquated notions of morality and altruism will give way to monopolies wringing every ounce of value and efficiency out of momentary competitive advantages. Unable to grasp the insanely technical changes, ordinary people will find it hard to resist.

• Wars won’t be fought by those canine-looking Boston Dynamics killer robots. Intelligence agencies such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency will use satellites and drones to track troop movements, then AI data miners such as Palantir will predict what enemy combatants are going to do before they even know.

• We will live in mega-cities tamed through AI surveillance and facial recognition and through digital integration of services and transport.

• Medicine won’t involve all that many caretakers. We already see multiple startups with wireless wearables monitoring health, with all the data going to dashboards where algorithms diagnose, then dispense treatment.

So where does that leave you?

Well, you can either ride the wave, or drown.

Dispatches is all about the mobility of highly skilled internationals. So coming soon … a post on the skills of the future drawn from our interviews with the most advanced tech startups, scale-ups and companies in Eindhoven.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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